I’m not sweating so why should I drink anything? You may not be sweating, but in cold, dry conditions, you are becoming dehydrated quicker than you realize. The dry winter air dehydrates you much more quickly than humid air because your body is trying to condition the air you are breathing into an acceptable humidity level and temperature. That breath that you see coming out is full of water vapor that you will need to replace.
What to Drink or Not?
Water: Nothing like good ole’ water! Adding a little bit of a drink mix that has sugar or electrolytes is never a bad idea either. Hot drinks are always a hit on trail. A thermos will certainly add some weight, but it will be worth every ounce. If you don’t want to carry the extra weight consider slipping the thermos into another person’s pack when they aren’t looking.
Alcohol: Who hasn’t gone on a winter trip and brought some whiskey along! Bad news is that alcohol will dilate your blood vessels. That warming feeling that you have is not real and your body will think that it is warmer than it actually is. This can impact how your body regulates heat and sweat. Also, alcohol is a diuretic and will increase the amount you urinate, further adding to your dehydration. Although this doesn’t mean you can’t have a small celebratory nip of something when warranted (if local regulations allow, of course)!
Caffeine: I may get some pretty ugly emails about this! Caffeine suppresses thirst and hunger sensations and is considered a diuretic. What this means is that caffeine will cause an increase in urination frequency. As a result, your kidneys will need to remove water from your bloodstream faster than normal to account for the loss. Unfortunately, you can find caffeine in many of your favorite liquids and snacks, such as coffee or hot chocolate.
Eating Snow: Your body needs water for metabolic function, but it doesn’t like to heat up that water before it can be used. Your body will expend more energy to bring the snow up to a suitable temperature for metabolic function. And be sure to stay away from the yellow snow. Frank Zappa said it best, “Watch out where the huskies go and don’t you eat that yellow snow!”
How to Fight the Cold
Carrying water in the cold can be very tricky. Keeping your water bottles insulated will help to prevent or at least slow down the freezing of your water. There are many ways that you can insulate your bottles, but think about making the bottles easy for you to get to so that you can drink water frequently. Consider packing your water wrapped inside of an insulating layer that you plan on using when you stop for a break. How about using an extra pair of socks? Is there a pocket on the inside of your jacket that is suitable? There are also many commercially made insulated water sleeves available. Section hiker has a nice piece about Winter Hydration Systems that is definitely worth looking at.
On a cold day water quickly freezes up inside the tube of hydration bladders. To avoid this issue there are insulating covers available for the tubes that will help. You can also help prevent the freeze up of the tube by blowing air back into the hose after each use.
My go to bottle is a wide mouth Nalgene type bottle. I prefer the wide mouth bottle because they are less likely to freeze closed. I myself keep my nalgenes bottles in neoprene sleeves inside of my pack surrounded by my down. This does mean that I need to take off my pack to get at the water. I try to make sure that I eat each time I get water to help keep my energy level up. If the temps are really cold you can add a hand warmer to the bottom of the neoprene sleeve with the bottle turned upside down to keep the lid from freezing.
Before I start a winter hike I make an effort to be properly hydrated. I would rather be ahead going into the hike properly hydrated than to struggle to get rehydrated while on the trail. It is important to remember that in cold, dry conditions, you become dehydrated more quickly than you realize, even if you’re not sweating much.
Drink frequently and have a snack with your beverage of choice. When you are properly hydrated your body is better able to process and utilize the foods that you are eating and this will help keep your energy levels up. Carrying a thermos with a hot drink is a great boost when you’re feeling the cold. One of my favorites is spiced cider.